The chief civil servant in charge of the controversial Public Services Card project has said that his department would not be challenging findings of illegality against the card unless it was “absolutely sure that a challenge was not only appropriate but necessary”.
Appearing before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee - ostensibly to discuss his department’s most recently published accounts - secretary-general of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection John McKeon wouldn’t be drawn on whether or not that challenge would serve to “undermine” the office of the Data Protection Commissioner, which operates as an independent State regulator.
“I’m not going to offer an opinion on that,” he said. “I’m advised that we are operating within the law, I believe we are operating within the law.”
“We would have gotten the report and sent it to the Attorney General and asked for advice and opinion on whether or not its findings were legitimate. We gave it very careful consideration,” he said.
Mr McKeon’s appearance before the PAC, which proved quite adversarial on a number of occasions under aggressive questioning from a number of TDs, was his first since the DPC ruled last August that using the PSC for State services other than welfare is illegal.
The commissioner also found that Social Protection must delete the historic data it holds on 3.2 million Irish citizens.
The secretary-general said he thought it “unfortunate that many people believe” his department is breaking the law in challenging the DPC’s findings.
He said that he and his department are “eager” to see an enforcement notice from the DPC in order to see whether or not a legal challenge in the courts would be necessary. He acknowledged however that it is “highly likely” that such a challenge will eventuate.
Asked how much that challenge would cost, Mr McKeon said “in truth I don’t know”.
Mr McKeon declined to acknowledge whether or not the advice received from the Attorney General was the sole reason for his department’s challenging of the DPC, stating that “it’s not a yes or no answer”.
“The Public Services Card I think delivers a lot of benefits to administration and customer service,” he said, adding that it would be”reckless and foolhardy not to challenge those findings” on the basis of the advice received from the Attorney General.
Mr McKeon added that he “disagreed vehemently” with much of the DPC’s 170-page report into the PSC, which was finally released to the public in September after a two-year investigation.
He said that accusations of function creep - that is something that is used for a different purpose other than that for which it was originally intended - against the PSC give the lie to an opinion he himself holds regarding the card - that the project was not implemented quickly enough.
Regarding the fact that no full business case had ever been drafted for the card project Mr McKeon said that “absolutely, hands up, I would have a plan if it was done now”, but added that he didn’t believe the missing facets of such a plan as identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2016 were in any way “critical” for the project’s success.